Coronavirus: how to get tested

Dr. Babak Ashrafi

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 14 May 2020

There are currently 2 kinds of tests available to find out if you have or have had coronavirus (COVID-19). For now, these are an antibody test and a PCR swab test. With a PCR swab test, you can find out whether you currently have the virus. Antibody tests can tell you whether you’ve had coronavirus previously.


The PCR swab test is available for free to anyone and can be booked through the government's Test and Trace program. The same tests can also be bought from private healthcare providers like ZAVA.

Antibody tests are currently mainly available privately. Your doctor might advise you to get one on the NHS if it’s clinically appropriate for you to do so.

Can I get tested for coronavirus?

Anyone can order a coronavirus test online or you can request one from the NHS if you have symptoms. You do not need to have symptoms to order a test from ZAVA. If you do have symptoms, you must then self isolate for 10 days, and everyone in your household must self isolate for 14 days while you wait to receive test results.

If your test result comes back negative, everyone in your household can return to normal. If your test comes back positive, the NHS Test and Trace team or local public health teams will get in touch - via text, email or phone call - to discuss who you may have come into close contact with and the places you have visited.

Any person you have come into contact with that could now be at risk of catching the virus will be emailed or texted with instructions to go into isolation for 14 days, even if they are not showing symptoms. After this, they will be tested if they develop symptoms. The rest of their household does not have to isolate unless someone becomes ill.

In NHS hospitals, patients showing symptoms of coronavirus are tested and have their sample sent to a laboratory for analyses.

Testing for coronavirus is not available through GP surgeries.

What tests are available for essential workers?

Essential workers and their household members who have symptoms can use an online portal to apply for a free coronavirus test. This can be done by booking an appointment at a drive-through testing site or by ordering a home test.

The website will ask you a few questions to check your eligibility and give you a choice of either home testing or booking a drive-through test in your region. Under the current scheme, essential workers are those who work in certain professions, for example NHS and social care staff, police, postal and supermarket workers.

Essential workers with symptoms who are unable to get a free testing slot through the government online portal can also buy home lab tests online from regulated private healthcare providers like ZAVA. We’re offering 20% off our coronavirus tests to all essential workers.

What tests are available for the general public?

Anyone can get tested for coronavirus if they are showing symptoms through the government’s Test and Trace program.

Home tests, like those offered by ZAVA, are also available and are sent to approved laboratories in the UK for analysis. They’re legal to use and highly accurate.

Although the government has advised against home testing for coronavirus, this advice is for tests that claim to identify coronavirus within minutes of testing at home without sending a sample to a lab for analysis. At present, there are no licenced or legal home tests in the UK that can tell you if you have coronavirus straight away.

When ordering any lab tests online, make sure you protect yourself by checking the healthcare provider is registered with the following healthcare regulators in the UK:

  • MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency)
  • GPhC (General Pharmaceutical Council)
  • CQC (Care Quality Commission)
  • GMC (General Medical Council)

Properly regulated healthcare providers will show these logos on their website.

When can I test?

You can take the PCR swab at any time to see if you currently have coronavirus. If you do have symptoms, you should aim to take your test within the first five days of them appearing for the best results.

If you have previously had symptoms of coronavirus, you can take an antibody test at least 14 days after you first developed symptoms. If you've never had symptoms, you can check for antibodies at any time.

To get a reliable result with a PCR swab test, it’s best to take the test as soon as you start showing symptoms, and definitely within the first 5 days of having them. With an antibody test, you can check to see if you’ve had coronavirus any time after the first 14 days of showing symptoms.

If you have any questions about whether to test, you can message the doctors at ZAVA for free advice.

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What is the testing process?

PCR swab test

The PCR swab testing process involves using a swab to collect cells from the back of your throat and nose. You can do this yourself, or someone else can do it for you. The swab is sealed in its package and sent to approved UK laboratories to be analysed.

At the moment, you can either get tested through regional testing sites (for essential workers and their families) or test at home.

Antibody test

The antibody test involves using a lancet to prick your finger. Next, you’ll collect a few drops of blood into a small tube. You then send this sample to our UK-based lab for testing.

Regional testing sites

Regional testing sites include over 30 drive-through testing centres around the UK, as well as mobile testing sites currently being rolled out to increase the number of tests.

The testing process involves a trained staff member taking swab samples from your throat and nose while you’re still in your car, and sending it to approved UK laboratories for checking.

The test results are sent by text message, 48 hours after the swab is taken.

Private home testing

Anyone can buy a home test from a private healthcare provider. If you order a lab test from ZAVA, the process works as follows:

  1. The sample collection pack is sent to you by Royal Mail.
  2. If you’ve selected a PCR swab test, you will collect a sample from your throat and nose (full instructions included). If you’ve selected an antibody test, you will collect a blood sample with a lancet.
  3. You send your sample to our accredited partner lab in the prepaid envelope
  4. Your results will be sent to your patient account within 2 days

Our doctors are on hand for any questions or concerns you may have, through your account.

Do I need someone to help me take the swab?

You can take your coronavirus test yourself, without help from someone else. Use your swab or lancet, depending on your test, to collect the right samples from your throat and nose or finger, according to the instructions that come with your test.

For all lab tests, whether from the government or sold privately, you should be given details of someone to contact if you have any questions or concerns.

What if I do the test incorrectly?

Each coronavirus test requires you to collect a sample from either your nose and throat with a swab or your finger with a lancet. If this is done incorrectly or the sample gets contaminated (accidentally falls on the ground or touches another surface), your test results may fail and you may need a new one.

Could my sample spread the virus to others?

All of our test samples are sent to UK laboratories for checking. These laboratories are staffed with experienced workers and academics, trained to use PPE (personal protective equipment) correctly to avoid getting infected when looking at coronavirus test samples.

What happens when I get my results?

Positive result (PCR swab test)

If your coronavirus test result is positive, you should continue to self isolate for 10 days after your symptoms started. If you’re becoming seriously ill with symptoms like breathing difficulties, use the NHS 111 online service for further medical advice, or call 999.

Negative result (PCR swab test)

If your test result is negative, you will no longer have to self isolate and can return to work (if you cannot work from home), as long as:

  • you feel well enough
  • you have not had a high temperature for 48 hours
  • other people in your household do not have coronavirus symptoms, or also test negative

If you took the sample after the first 5 days of having symptoms, and:

  • you still have symptoms that strongly suggest you have coronavirus (for example a high temperature and/or a continuous cough)
  • or someone in your household has these symptoms

you should call 111 or speak to your GP for further advice. You can also contact a ZAVA doctor through your account.

Positive result (antibody test)

If you test positive for coronavirus antibodies, you will know that you’ve previously been infected and recovered. This does not mean that you no longer need to practice social distancing, as you can still spread the virus, and you may not be entirely immune.

Negative result (antibody test)

If your coronavirus antibody test result comes back negative and you took your sample at least 14 days after the start of any symptoms, then you either haven’t had coronavirus, or your antibody levels have dropped to undetectable levels.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion
Accreditations: BSc, MBBS, MRCGP (2008)

Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.

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Last reviewed: 14 May 2020

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